No end of hot air already surrounds next month’s rugby internationals in which each of the ‘home’ countries look to repel boarders from the southern hemisphere. Those contests round off a long tough season for all the visiting teams; for us in the north I suppose these autumn openers will establish an early pecking order for the betting on next year’s World Cup in France — as well as, doubtless, heap more insecurities on the holders of that trophy, England. More generally, the most serious purpose of the November Test matches will be to swell the profits of the corporate hospitality concerns to whose day-out alcoholic tea-parties international rugby boards seem ever more in thrall.
Sure, tickets will be scarce and the stadiums rafter-packed but, increasingly, a far different constituency than of old gets worked up over these one-off international ‘exhibition’ matches. For rugby union’s authentic red-blooded cognoscenti, far more potent these days is the European club championship, the irresistible Heineken Cup. It begins this weekend. Here is passion, intensity and skill — and an allowable tribalism which, at Twickenham internationals anyway, can be embarrassingly grating. Last season all 20 international matches paled into insignificance compared with just two breathtaking Heineken semis and an overwhelmingly tumultuous final staged by what the French (no booze promotions allowed) simply call ‘le H’. In fact, hard as I’ve tried over the summer to recall a better one, I reckon last May’s fervent Munster–Biarritz final in Cardiff was the finest game of rugby I’ve ever witnessed: palpitatingly draining, heroically uplifting.
This weekend the carnival begins again. On Friday night the pick of the ties was probably the visit of the English champs Sale to the Ospreys (Swansea–Neath United to you and me). On Saturday Ulster travel to Toulouse, Bourgoin to Cardiff, and Leinster intrepidly tackle Gloucester’s suddenly dazzling bunch of kids at rickety old fortress Kingsholm. On Sunday London’s Wasps are at home to French dark horses, Castres; Northampton unenviably make the journey to a Biarritz XV intent on avenging May’s most gallant defeat and, having bottle-banked the champagne empties, champions Munster (always slow starters, especially in England) dauntingly begin at Leicester’s Welford Road. H for Hooray and Hurrah …and next weekend, more of the same!
Munster’s fallback banker has always been their Limerick hillside citadel at Thomond Park. It is due for redevelopment and, should the province reach the quarter-finals in the spring, they will have to book to play their ‘home’ games at a ground across the water. Not that it bothered their supporting red army’s day in Cardiff in May. In fact, apart from a string of early-round hiccups in England, Munster’s mayhem has always travelled ferociously well. All of three decades ago, for instance, when their still-famed monarch of the red-mist motley Moss Keane won the first of his 51 caps for Ireland against France in Paris, his parents on the farm deep in the wilds of Kerry hired their first television set for the occasion. The whole village mustered around it, and as they watched their leggy one-man stampede running out to prepare for the faraway kick-off, Mrs Keane frettedly fingered her rosary, imploring, ‘Dear Lord, please don’t let m’darlin’ baby Maurice Ignatius get hurt.’ To which Keane père retorted, ‘Quiet, Mam, I fancy it’s those 15 fellas in blue y’needs to be prayin’ for.’